caption: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Photo by Neil Armstrong.

This was originally posted at Blog on the Universe on July 16, 2009, 4 days in advance of the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing. I wanted to share it with the Space Tweeps in honor of their recent party at the Cape.

I think it
August 1998. I got a
call from Gina Ross, the principal of Buzz Aldrin Elementary School in
Reston, VA. Her teachers were about to return to school for the new
academic year, and before the kids returned she wanted me to come and
visit. My mission? To inspire her teaching staff with an
inter-disciplinary talk on the nature of human exploration, what we as a
species of explorers are capable of achieving when we put our minds to
it, and that teachers and parents are the link that binds each
generation to the next, allowing us personally and collectively to
aspire to new heights.

The presentation was going well. They were
with me, and I could see them getting energized for the new year. Midway
through, I was telling them about how I was inspired to be a space
explorer when I was just 11. It was one of those singular moments that
changes us forever. I was watching a black and white television and on
the screen were Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking around … on the
Moon! You just have to step back from that sentence and let it soak in.

I showed them that incredible photograph (I used it on a recent post) taken by
Michael Collins through Columbia’s window as Armstrong and
Aldrin were returning from the surface in the lunar module Eagle.
With my voice cracking a bit, I said this was an emotionally powerful
image for me because—I was in it. There, above the lunar horizon, was a
tiny blue Earth, hanging motionless against the black void of space. On
that world was me looking
back at the astronauts a quarter of a million miles away. It was
actually a pretty emotional moment for everyone in the room. Many of us
had lived through that shared experience back in 1969.

Then something happened as if on cue. I
heard the door open ever so gently so as not to disturb, and …
Buzz Aldrin walked in. Gina Ross had invited him to his namesake school,
but apparently forgot to tell anyone. We were all stunned. That
powerful photo was still on the screen, and I was having a bit of
trouble getting back into the story. So someone in the audience broke
the silence and said “hey, that’s me and Neil coming back to Mike!” It
was just … surreal. Here is this incredibly historic photo capturing the
most monumental achievement in human history, and to someone in the
room it was personal to the point of it being the subject of a casual,
even ordinary comment. It was like leafing through your family
photoalbum and stopping to tell the cute story behind a particular
photo. I guess the lesson is that these moments that change us all are
accomplished by ordinary people like you and me. But he was my hero. He was once 240,000
miles away from me.

I got back into my talk, managing to build
to an emotional conclusion—that continuing the legacy of human
exploration rested squarely in the hands of teachers and parents. I took
some questions and collected my things. I walked out into the hall and
there, making a quick beeline right for me, was Buzz Aldrin. He smiled
broadly and gave me one of those two-handed handshakes. The he said
“Jeff!” (HE CALLED ME JEFF!) “That was really inspiring, where
did it come from?”

I … just couldn’t think. I didn’t know what
to say. I remember swallowing against a lump in my throat, and I heard
myself saying “it came from you.”

To this day, I think back on what I said
and know with every fiber of my being that it was the perfect answer. It
came from my heart. It gave perfect voice to what I felt, for isn’t
that what it’s all about? Every generation inspiring the next so our
children can take us where none have gone before?

I’ll never forget that moment for the rest
of my life. It was my ‘Kodak moment’. Thanks Gina.


If you’d like to continue this journey with
me, here are some other things you might want to read at Blog on the Universe:

More on My Memories of Apollo 11

On The Nature of Our Existence

On Teaching

On Heroes

On my sense of Exploration, Science, and Education

Photo Credit: Neil Armstrong and NASA